So let me call you Alex, if that’s OK with you. Not that I want to show off with my pals, but we kinda know each other a bit through what you gave me to read…
Those questions are the ones I would have liked to ask Bukowski after he wrote “On Writing” (all the quotes are from that book). The last one is the one he might have wanted to ask you.
1 – “When you write only to get famous you shit it away. I don’t want to make rules but if there is one it is : the only writers who write well are those who must write in order not to go mad.”
Does that speak to you? Do you ever feel to be on the verge of madness?
I haven’t felt close to madness in awhile. This seems like a juvenile notion: that writers must be slightly crazed to be good. They must be tenacious, obsessive and driven by hatreds. I don’t consider that ‘crazy’, but rather a a requirement for anyone who pursues a calling. The writers who were truly crazy are, in my estimation, unreadable. Just as one wouldn’t want to listen to the ravings from a psyche ward for long, so too does one quickly flee from their pages.
2 – “I’ve been tired of poetry for years, for centuries but I kept writing it because the others were doing it so badly.”
What about you? Do you ever write or read poetry?
I don’t write poetry, but I read it quite often. It is, when done properly, the highest art form. Good poetry will outshine good prose easily. I enjoy the exactness of poetry, the precision, the surprise and delight of inventive phrasing. You don’t get that much with fiction. I adore the poetry of James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and a great many others. Bukowski is right that there is a great deal of terrible poetry out there, especially of the political variety. W.H. Auden said ‘poetry doesn’t do anything’. He is correct, in that poetry saves no one, feeds not the hungry, medicates not the sick, nor does it clothe the naked. It is manna to the soul, which is hidden to our hardened eyes.
3 – “I don’t know where you got your talent from but the gods undoubtedly endowed you well with it. » (To John Fante)”
You believe in that ? In fairies tilted on your cradle when you were a baby ? Or it is just a lot of work?
When I was very young, say five or six years old, my grandfather developed a melanoma cancer on his face. Holding a great disdain for hospitals and doctors, he sought out the expertise of a local healer, what in Kentucky is commonly referred to as a ‘wood witch’, by the name of Blackman Snell. The man was of German descent, and had gleaned from his Teutonic forebears a great wealth of knowledge regarding homeopathic remedies, ointments, salves and the like. He had no formal training. As far as I know, memory was his only tutor. My grandfather held him in the highest esteem, and he when he paid the man a visit one cold November night I was allowed to tag along. So we drove through the winding country of empty roads for what seemed the better part of an hour until we arrived at a derelict hovel gone to seed. Once inside, we were greeted by Blackman Snell, a hulking bear of a man with a great eyrie of a beard depending from his face. He proceeded to ‘doctor’ my grandfather’s cancer in the kitchen. All the while, I watched from a corner. He put some sort of paste onto my grandfather’s face, applying it with a chicken feather, then gave strict instructions on how the poultice should be reapplied every week. And then, as though noticing me for the first time, Mr. Blackman Snell stared at me with a sudden jolt. Slowly, he came toward me. He placed his hands over my head and, whether command or prayer I don’t know, repeated the words ‘live forever’.
Live forever. Thus was I christened. I think a great deal of my writing life begins with that pronouncement. Live forever. The man may have put something inside me that I am only now beginning to understand.
4 – “There isn’t any excuse fort a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says : form, form, form !! Put it in the cage ! Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief.”
What do you think about schools of writing ? About writers who end up writing the same book all over again ? About words put in the cage ?
In regards to form, I think too many contemporary poets are ignorant of it. They do themselves and their art a grave disservice. Rants and jeremiads have their place. But the economy of language placed into ‘nine bean rows’ as Yeats would have it is a high calling to keep order among the chaos. That being said, I don’t follow trends or schools. That would be death to the writer.
5 – “I do not believe in technique or school or sissies… I believe in grasping at the curtains like a drunken monk… and tear them down, down, down…”
Do you also grasp at the curtains ? Tear them down ? Does it happen to you to work so hard on a text that you end up throwing it away ?
I don’t grasp at the curtains, but I do play with knives and guns. I do consider myself a monk, mainly sober. The solitude of writing demands we reenter the world through danger. Some find danger in alcohol. I find danger in firearms and cold steel.
6 – “It is the unread and the unprepared, those so hasty to splash into print that they have not reached into the ages for a sound and basic springboard, that I take task with.”
Is your springboard sound ? Do you believe in these trendy “creative writing” courses ? Places where people are taught to write books ?
I have nothing but disdain for creative writing courses. Writing is not a democratic process. It can not be institutionalized, though some who claim to be ‘writers’ should be. Though I attended a creative writing program, I found it mainly an extended adolescence. I learned a bit, but mainly about how to hate with vigor. Such ‘courses’ lead ultimately to the gas chamber of conformity. Few who emerge from them have the courage to say something new, brilliant, or even true. They have, in recent years, become hyper-puritanical enclaves. The new zealots want to heave down the canon, but what they aim to replace it with is nothing short of doggerel.
7 – “My question is this : does a writer become public property to be ransacked without notice upon publication or does he still retain the rights of privacy as a tax-paying citizen ? Would it be gross to say that the only eucharist of many an artist is (still) isolation from an only-too-fast closing society, or is this simply a desuetude ?”
What’s your take on that one ?
The best writers have a gnawing tension in their hearts. They both hate and adore attention. In one sense, it is a great honor that you thought enough of my work to ask me these questions. In another, it creates a bout of dyspeptic nausea. Here I am burping and eructing these vast truths. Well, I stand by what I say. Ask me tomorrow, however, and I may have an entirely different answer.
As a young man, I wanted to be published throughout the world. Now that I’m older, I find that I write more for the quiet and delicious pleasure of words, the supple sugar of language. And always for the encounter with the circling beasts that inhabit every myth, every buried and as yet unrecovered legend.
I hope these answers meet your needs. Thank you for your interest.